Public Service Amid COVID-19

Aaron McNelis

Our McCarthy Fellow in San Francisco, Aaron McNelis, shares his experiences currently as a Fellow with San Francisco District 1 Supervisor, Sandra Lee Fewer, the navigation of the Board of Supervisors in the context of COVID-19, and his commitment to public service to create systemic change in a pivotal election year. 

When I began my orientation as a McCarthy Fellow in early May, at the close of the 2020 spring semester, I, along with my peers in the program, faced an entirely different world in which to learn about public service, public policy, and civic engagement, than the one we inhabited when we had been accepted into the McCarthy fellowship program in early March.

Led by the McCarthy Center’s Assistant Director of Public Service Programs, Angie Vuong, the past couple of months have seen my peers and me in the Fellowship program use unexpected and enforced change to improve our professional skills, abilities, and capacities. This summer has been full of writing about our past experiences, reflecting on our motivations to get into public service, and upscaling what skills we had when we entered the program. We have written policy memos, reflected on our abilities and dispositions, refined our professional self-presentation through our CVs and resumes, engaged in Excel workshops, and continuously linked what we do in this fellowship program with current events that demand our energy and investment. 

Come August 18, I entered into an internship with the office of San Francisco’s District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who is also the chair of the Budget and Appropriations Committee. I arrived in a team engulfed with the task of creating a city budget that reconciled the limitations imposed by a budget deficit brought on by COVID-19 with the financial and health insecurities of so many of the cities’ vulnerable. I have been tasked with helping keep the small businesses, those that represent the District 1 community’s lifeblood, afloat. I have seen firsthand that while local government must adapt to new best practices and conditions, the needs of the people they serve do not slow or abate because the times are unprecedented. If anything, they accelerate. My time with the city has been a testament to the fact that the people of this city, and this country, require that their institutions and leaders show up for them; what is on the line are jobs, livelihoods, health, safety, and dignity.

This truth leads me to another; that public service is imperative. However, what is required is not its content per se, since every person’s unique array of experiences, skills, and dispositions should inform their engagement. What is necessary is its purpose. What is required in the build-up to the presidential election this fall, and further into the future, is service rooted in our communities’ best interests. To me, this service’s function is driven by the hope of, and to the end of, aiding our local, state, and national communities to be somehow more than the sum of their disparate parts. Thus far, my experience as a McCarthy fellow has illuminated that, during a pivotal election year, amidst a pandemic, isolated from friends and family, we need our peers, leaders, and institutions to show up for one another now more than ever.

Are you interested in becoming a McCarthy Fellow in San Francisco? If so, find more information here.

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